In a nutshell
- Folate is one of the most important vitamins you can take when looking to conceive
- Certain people struggle to benefit from particular types of folate
- Folic acid is a synthetic form of the vitamin, whereas "methylated folate" is naturally occurring
- 1 in 3 women has a gene variant that impacts how they convert folate, which makes folic acid fortification not ideal
- It is recommended that women start taking a supplement with methylated folate in it between 1 and 6 months prior to conceiving, as well as throughout the pregnancy .
Folate = the good stuff
We all want to give our kids the best start in life. And that starts even before we fall pregnant.
Here’s the thing: the weeks before and at the start of our pregnancy are some of the most crucial. They lay the groundwork for our baby’s neural development (a.k.a. what will become their brain) as well as their healthy growth and development.
And out of all the dietary supplements you need to take when conceiving, folate is arguably one of the most important. However, not all of us can get the best benefits out of certain types of folate.
So, let’s dive into what type of folate you should be looking for in your prenatal vitamin, and what’s easier for your body (and your baby) to use.
Folic acid vs methylated folate: What's the difference?
Let’s start with the basics.
Folate is an umbrella term for a type of B vitamin — specifically a form of vitamin B9 — that’s naturally present in a bunch of foods .
It enables your body to produce DNA and helps supports red blood cell formation.
While folate is found in a range of foods (such as leafy greens, legumes, avocado and fruit), it’s also a common vitamin supplement . But not all types of dietary supplements use the same type of folate.
Here are 2 of the most common types of folate you might come across:
Unlike the type of folate found naturally in fruit and veggies, folic acid is a synthetic form of this vitamin .
That means that it’s only found in fortified foods (where ingredients that aren’t naturally meant to be there are added in), folic acid supplements, and pharmaceutical products.
But here’s the thing: folic acid relies on your liver converting this ingredient into its active form, methylated folate .
That means that even with a high folic acid intake, folic acid supplementation only works efficiently when your body is able to make this conversion happen (which isn’t the case for everyone).
On the flip side, methylated folate (5-MTHF) is a naturally occurring type of folate . It's different from synthetic folic acid and it doesn’t need to be converted by your body in order to be useful.
Methylated folate has what’s known in the medical world as “high bioavailability", which is jargon for being super easy for everyone to absorb .
It makes sense: this type of folate cuts out the middleman and ditches the need for your body to go through a complex conversion process to ensure you can soak up the maximum benefits.
In fact, studies have shown that methylated folate is the most common folate found in the human body, meaning your body is already familiar with this form of folate and can use it effectively .
Why does the body struggle to process certain types of folate?
To get to the bottom of this question, we need to get our heads around a common type of genetic variant that can prevent many of us from converting folic acid into its active form.
Getting to know the MTHFR gene
Methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (or MTHFR for short) is a gene that sends messages to your body to produce the MTHFR enzyme, which helps you process folate .
As these genes are passed on genetically, you’ll receive 2 copies of the MTHFR gene: one from your mum and one from your dad. The combination of genes you inherit from your parents will determine what kind of variant you end up with.
So, why does all this matter?
There’s a specific gene variant, known as MTHFR C677T (or sometimes its partner in crime, A1298C) that many people have that disrupts the way the body converts the MTHFR enzyme and therefore how you process folate .
How common is the MTHFR gene variant?
In broad terms, 1 in 3 women is shown to have this specific gene variant. However, some studies suggest there are differences in the prevalence of this gene between racial groups.
For example, research has shown up to 70% of Caucasian Americans may have this variant, compared with just 30% of African Americans .
Why methylated folate is easier for the body to process
It all comes back to the type of folate you're consuming. As we mentioned, methylated folate is the most bioavailable form of folate.
In other words, when consumed at doses of 400mcg or above  (which is the case if you take the Kin Prenatal Supplement), your body doesn’t have to jump through tonnes of hoops to convert it and access its benefits — unlike with a folic acid supplement .
While research has shown that both folic acid and methylated folate do have pretty similar biologically active profiles, that’s only the case once folic acid has been activated and converted into methylated folate .
But if you have the MTHFR gene variant, your body won’t be able to do that for you. That’s what makes methylated folate a winner: it offers maximum benefits, no matter what gene variants are present for you .
Plus, research also shows that this type of folate has other advantages, including:
- Lowering the risk of missing the symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency
- Overcoming any issues caused by MTHFR gene variants that can stop your body from benefitting from certain types of folate
How much folate do you need to be consuming?
For those who are not trying to conceive, the recommended daily intake of folate is 400 mcg each day.
This can be met by consuming dietary folate present in foods such as fortified cereal, enriched bread and pasta (which contain folic acid, not its active form), peanuts and dark green leafy vegetables.
At least 1 month before and during the first 3 months of pregnancy, your recommended daily intake of folate increases to 600 mcg .
A minimum of 400 mcg of this should come from folate supplementation to ensure you're reaching your daily target. By using a prenatal with methylated folate, you’ll rest assured knowing you're reaching the required amount.
As the benefits of folate are key during the first stages of pregnancy, it’s recommended that women start taking a supplement rich in methylated folate between 1 and 6 months prior to conceiving (as well as throughout pregnancy).
So, next time you’re shopping around for pregnancy vitamins or a folate supplement, check the label and see what type of folate is inside.
If it doesn't contain the good stuff (a.k.a. methylated folate), you know to shop elsewhere. Because no one wants to worry about whether their supplement is really working or not.